Uber and Lyft drivers deserve a better strike

Uber and Lyft drivers deserve a better strike

An article from the Organizing Work blog, critically analyzing the recent Uber/Lyft strikes. This article focuses on the US experience, and doesn't discuss the extent of participation in the UK.

This week, labor news was dominated by the story of the Uber / Lyft strike. On Wednesday, rideshare drivers were meant to turn off the apps for a period of a few hours, or even the entire day. Riders were meant to refrain from using the apps to hail rides. Simultaneous events were coordinated around the world – in London, Australia, Brazil – and across the US. Rallies were held to bring attention to driver grievances, from low pay, to being “locked out” of the app (essentially, fired) without appeal or explanation.

Labor organizations and NGOs, left media, and social media all boosted the strike, imploring people not to cross the “virtual picket line” and declaring support and sympathy for the drivers’ cause – understandably so.

However, as has become commonplace, political support edged into obfuscation. Sympathetic news outlets overdrew the action. Take this breathless headline from Slate the following day: “The Ride-Hail Strike Got Just Enough Attention to Terrify Uber. It was likely the largest-ever gig worker protest to date—and politicians noticed.” In fact, there was little indication that the strike had impacted the company much at all, nor that it had drawn much participation, even in New York and LA, where the biggest organizing efforts seemed to have taken place. Ride availability appeared unchanged, as did customer demand.

Interestingly, just two days earlier, the same publication had promised readers a way “to tell if the Uber strike is working”: namely that it would take longer to find a ride, and surge pricing would go into effect (or not!, they hedged). By the time Slate was declaring the strike a success, those criteria were forgotten. Actually, there was now an explicit declaration that they never mattered:

It’s true that riders likely had no problem hailing an Uber through their apps on Wednesday, wherever they were. But even if you could get an Uber in three minutes despite the “strike,” it would be hard to call this global labor action a failure. For one thing, the effort attracted a ton of media interest, and it also garnered the support of high-profile politicians on the left, including presidential candidates like Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

Here we see the goalposts moved – the object wasn’t to impact the company, but to get media and politician attention – which tells us something about the campaign and its real intentions (more on that in a moment).

Meanwhile, organizers themselves exaggerated driver participation in the strike.

In Los Angeles, Drivers United LA said that of its 4,300 members, 98 percent were committed to going on strike. The New York Taxi Workers Alliance expected the “vast majority” of its approximately 10,000 app drivers to do the same.

These soundbites are a record-scratch moment for an organizer. To organize that overwhelming of a strike mandate among that enormous of a workforce – let alone one fractured by the lack of a fixed workplace and the volatility of casual, freelance status – would take a Herculean effort. It would take nothing short of years to build that kind of trust and militancy.

Moreover, again, such a large-scale refusal clearly didn’t happen (which didn’t stop the executive director of the NYTWA from doubling down). No grumps on social media complained of being unable to get rides. No un-organized drivers complained of being unable to get fares (remember that it was a simultaneous call for boycott). A reporter who approached drivers near LAX found some who hadn’t even heard of the strike. Rallies were small.

Under any real circumstances, if a union believed that 98% of its members were going to strike, and instead only a tiny minority did, that would indicate something had gone abysmally wrong in the organizing: either the union had been completely (self-)deceived in their understanding of worker support, or some catastrophic thing had happened in the interim — it’s actually difficult to speculate what, because such a scenario is so far removed from reality.

The only real conclusion to be drawn here is that there was no real organizing for a strike, other than appealing to voluntary participation on the part of a handful of politically like-minded drivers and customers. The strategy was a media “air war” declaring or feigning a strike, and looking to see what would shake out. There was a projection of “worker power” that organizers relied on sympathetic media to uncritically affirm. There was no real expectation of concessions from Uber or Lyft, but the hopes of raising the public profile of the campaign.

We’ve been here before

All of this is reminiscent of the “Fight for 15” campaign that began in 2012 with small-scale fast-food worker rallies or strikes and culminated in legislative pushes to raise local minimum wages, eventually, to $15 an hour.

While FF15 pretended to be a grassroots movement of workers spontaneously rising up and (with the help of local worker centers or NGOs) taking action against employers, it was better understood as a “march on the media” or “militant lobbying.” It was entirely orchestrated by the SEIU, although they denied responsibility – to the point of calculated deception – until they no longer could. It operated top-down and “above the heads of workers,” both in terms of the legislative gains it was aiming for, and in terms of the tightly-controlled manner in which it was organized.

Its goal was not empowering minimum wage service workers to fight their bosses, but “creating a new base, guided from above, to push for legislation.” That is, it delivered both voters, and a campaign issue, ready-made, to Democratic candidates. (Now that it feels political winds have shifted, SEIU is disinvesting from the campaign.)

Is the rideshare driver campaign another FF15? The political timing is right – the lead-up to a presidential election. And the tactics look the same: media spectacle giving heavy air cover to a supposedly militant and spontaneous local strike.

Why does this matter? Especially in light of the fact that FF15 appears to have been pretty successful, with six states and several large cities adopting a $15/hour minimum wage or on a schedule towards that. Doesn’t effectiveness trump everything?

For one thing, in a campaign where workers are merely grist for the mill, it’s easy to be cavalier about their risk exposure. Uber is already notorious for locking out drivers without notice or explanation. What is in place to protect those few who participated in the strike this week? In the absence of genuine collective organization, not much.

Stepping back, the obfuscating way in which these “strikes” claim widespread mobilization when their only tactic is a media blitz gives workers – perhaps especially young workers and gig workers and workers with no previous experience with unions – the mistaken impression that shortcuts exist to organizing (that grueling program of trust-building one-on-one conversations), or that public pressure carries the day.

People are also susceptible to the idea that the only way to capture gig workers with no brick-and-mortar workplace is by putting out a strike notice and hoping that it goes viral enough to reach all workers, and that it is inspiring enough to lead them off the job. But such a strategy cannot produce a strike, not least because it skips over the crucial step of building the kind of mutual trust and solidarity needed to pull off risky, mass-scale work disruptions. (Nor should we believe that the organizers of the Uber / Lyft strike were even expecting a real strike to happen.)

It’s true that when organizing some types of workers, you need to think beyond the standard National Labor Relations Board model. Workers classified as independent contractors, as most rideshare drivers are for now, cannot simply file for a union election and then bargain a contract without first legally challenging their classification.

They can, however, still win major concessions from their employers. They can do that by building a broad organization of drivers with durable solidarity, directly in conversation with one another and capable of making democratic decisions to orchestrate the mass withholding of their labor.

When Wednesday’s Uber / Lyft strike proved a flop, the corporate mainstream media was stupid enough to chalk it up to the fact that “gig workers can’t organize” or that “rideshare drivers can’t strike, they need the money.” The second idea is a laughable inversion of reality: workers strike because they cannot afford to go on living as they are. The first idea is just as false. Despite the logistical difficulties (building contact lists, tracking drivers down, developing a plan for collective action), rideshare drivers can and should collectively organize the very thing this week’s media campaign bluffed. They would be much better served by such a plan.

Posted By

R Totale
Jun 5 2019 18:55

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  • the obfuscating way in which these “strikes” claim widespread mobilization when their only tactic is a media blitz gives workers – perhaps especially young workers... with no previous experience with unions – the mistaken impression that shortcuts exist to organizing

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Comments

Hieronymous
Jul 13 2019 18:02

This disingenuous article is more than a case of seeing the glass being half empty -- simply because, without any evidence whatsoever, it claims there is no glass. In addition to being a hit piece based on absolutely no on-the-ground knowledge, this is ahistorical garbage.

I personally met some of the Rideshare Drivers United organizers in Los Angeles in 2016, but they had been doing nascent organizing over the previous years. This is important because although Uber and Lyft started in San Francisco, L.A. is their biggest market. Subsequently, RDU have developed an industrial organizing approach by building bonds of solidarity with the Tech Workers Coalition, have made connections with organizers and strategists in other supply chain sectors (ILWU & RWU), and are in coordination with attempts to organize rideshare drivers worldwide. This article doesn't even make an attempt to research any of this. Talk about armchair shit talking . . .

The singular biggest challenge to organizing in this sector is the 97% annual turnover among rideshare drivers, as reported in the Silicon Valley journal The Information. Add to that the obvious fact that for the overwhelming majority of drivers this is a second or even third job -- what used to be called "moonlighting" -- making it a really, really hard workforce to organize. With only 3% of the workforce being around year-after-year, it makes it nearly impossible for

R Totale wrote:
. . . building a broad organization of drivers with durable solidarity, directly in conversation with one another and capable of making democratic decisions to orchestrate the mass withholding of their labor.

So let's give those rideshare driver comrades credit for getting this far with their one-day strike. I spent the entire of the afternoon of May 8th at the Uber HQ protest, standing in the middle of San Francisco's Market Street blocking traffic in the center of the city for hours with dozens of Uber/Lyft drivers. There was nothing astroturf about that. There was radiant energy of militant possibilities that was the diametrical opposite of this ideological screed (the OP).

Additionally, out West the future of the independent contractor model is under threat, having already been declared illegal by the California Supreme Court in the Dynamex Decision. Presently, AB5 passed in the California State Assembly, codifying Dynamex into state law (it is still awaiting state Senate approval and the governor's signature), so legalistically the tide might be turning on this form of techno-disruption. We can't rely on the state, but it reflects the current climate regarding Lyft and Uber after their IPO flops.

Hieronymous
Jun 8 2019 23:23

The rideshare driver strike and organizing have zero resemblance to Fight for $15. They are directly in the lineage of West Coast port troqueros, who've been fighting against the legal fiction of their misclassification as "independent contractors" which resulted from the deregulation of the Motor Carrier Act in 1980. That didn't stop them from chalking up a track record of militant strikes ever since.

R Totale
Jun 8 2019 16:37

Thanks for that response - I added the disclaimer at the start because it didn't seem to fit with my understanding of what was happening in the UK, but maybe it's not that accurate about the US either (or, being more charitable, I imagine the situation probably varied quite widely from one city to another, so it might be an accurate picture of some places but not others?) I think it'd be worth you writing that response up as a full reply and submitting it to the blog that originally published this piece - you can contact them at contact@organizing.work

Hieronymous
Jun 9 2019 15:18

It goes without saying that accounts of militant working class self-activity in the bourgeois-spectacular-media-industrial-complex are biased, so I'd suggest comrades NOT analyze accounts of the rideshare driver organizing -- and strikes, like the global one on 8 May 2019 -- in the mainstream, leftist or activist press, but instead get out in the streets and talk to drivers.

I did, but more importantly -- as a former car courier, taxi driver and bike messenger myself (1980s & early 1990s) -- I did a very brief overview of the major transformations in the class composition of the transportation sector in the U.S. That analysis is posted here: "Working Class Decomposition & Gig Economy Work."

R Totale
Jun 9 2019 14:10
Hieronymous wrote:
It goes without saying that accounts of militant working class self-activity in the bourgeois-spectacular-media-industrial-complex are biased, so I'd suggest comrades NOT analyze accounts of the rideshare driver organizing -- and strikes, like the global one on 8 May 2019 -- in the mainstream, leftist or activist press, but instead get out in the streets and talk to drivers.

Point taken, but I think there is a slight contradiction there - getting out in the streets and talking to people involved is definitely the best way to find out about what's going on locally, but it's hard to get that much of an impression about how well a global strike is going without relying on media accounts of some kind? I suppose that this is one place where political organisation, as well as websites like this one, still have a role to play.

Hieronymous
Jun 9 2019 15:25
R Totale wrote:
I suppose that this is one place where . . . websites like this one, still have a role to play.

word

Case in point: one first-hand account of a strike on libcom is worth thousands published in Labor Notes or other sectarian leftist rags.

Speaking of which, I'll try to persuade Rideshare Drivers United comrades in Los Angeles to post their accounts of the strike here.